Health and nutrition of loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) in the southeastern United States

Christine M. Molter, Terry M. Norton, Lisa A. Hoopes, Steven E. Nelson, Michelle Kaylor, Amy Hupp, Rachel Thomas, Erika Kemler, Philip H. Kass, Michael D. Arendt, Elizabeth A. Koutsos, Annie Page-Karjian

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) are opportunistic carnivores that feed primarily on benthic invertebrates and fish. Sea turtle rehabilitation requires provision of a species-specific, balanced diet that supplies nutrition similar to that of a wild diet; this can be challenging because free-ranging loggerheads’ diets vary depending on their life stage and geographic location, with predominant prey species dictated by local availability. The goal of this study was to better understand the nutritional needs of subadult and adult loggerheads in rehabilitation. This was accomplished by conducting a retrospective survey of stomach contents identified during gross necropsy of 153 deceased loggerheads that stranded in coastal Georgia, USA. A total of 288 different forage items were identified; the most frequently observed prey items belong to the subphylum Crustacea (N = 131), followed by bony fish (Osteichthyes; N = 45), gastropod mollusks (N = 40), bivalve mollusks (N = 23), and Atlantic horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus; N = 15). The proportions of certain prey items differed significantly with turtle size; adult turtles ate proportionately more gastropods (p = 0.001), and subadults ate proportionately more fish (p = 0.01). Stomach contents information was used to determine common local prey items (blue crab, cannonball jellyfish, horseshoe crab, whelk), which were evaluated for nutritional content. Additionally, we compared hematology and plasma biochemistry profiles (including proteins, trace minerals, and vitamins) between four cohorts of loggerhead turtles, including free-ranging subadults and adults, nesting females, and loggerheads undergoing rehabilitation. This information was applied to inform a regionally specific, formulated diet for tube feeding, and a supplement containing vitamins and minerals for captive loggerheads, to more closely approximate the nutritional content of their natural diet. Assessing the regional and temporal variability in loggerhead diets is an important component in their effective conservation because resultant data can be used to help understand the impacts of environmental perturbations on benthic food webs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition
StateAccepted/In press - 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • dietary supplement
  • hematology
  • nutrition
  • plasma biochemistry
  • prey items
  • rehabilitation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Food Animals
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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